Finding Mr. Raymond (Writer Unboxed Redirect)

lotr-ballantine-set-jan-17I”m up on Writer Unboxed (always an honor!) with an essay that starts out with a search in the name of gratitude. If you’ve ever read any of my bios, I always mention how my writing journey began with my sixth grade teacher, Mr. Raymond. Well, we (my wife and I) went looking for Mr. Raymond in order to express my gratitude. I share how it turned out in the post, but it’s turned into a pretty cool life lesson. In response, several of the people I’ve shared the story with were inspired to reach out to a former teacher or mentor of their own. How knows? Maybe you’ll be inspired, too. And, as Mr. Raymond says, “we never know the impact we have on those we encounter each day, even those we meet just for a moment.”

I hope you get a chance to stop by and read the essay, and maybe join the conversation. But in any case, know that every small act of kindness you offer your fellows this week has the potential of resonating impact. Be kind, and pass it on.

F-F-Finally! A New Post! Redirect to F-Word Essay on WU

F-Word 1Hello Blog. Sorry, it’s been a while, I know. But I promise, not without reason. I’ve been f-f-frantically working away on a rewrite of The Severing Son. I’m pleased with what’s developing, but it’s taking a large chunk of my admittedly limited focus and attentions span. But I did manage to write an essay for Writer Unboxed. Which, I always say, is an honor. And also it’s a challenge. No one f-f-phones in a post over on WU. And so, I dug deep, about a subject I have strong and evolving feelings for: the F-Word. Curious? Hope so. Please f-f-feel f-f-free to click on over. (Hint, it’s not the one you might be thinking.)

I do understand that it’s a busy week for most (particularly in the U.S.). In any case, thank you for your support. To my American friends, have a Happy Thanksgiving! Here’s to a safe and productive holiday season!

Oh, Sweet Blindness

Laura Nyro Livin the artist's life“Oh sweet blindness

A little magic, a little kindness

Oh sweet blindness, all over me…” ~Laura Nyro

 Really, Subconscious? I woke up at 4 am the other night with the song Sweet Blindness playing in my head. On repeat. When I got up, it stayed with me. I thought it was odd, as I don’t think I’ve heard the song in at least 20 years. Although it’s not so odd that it would be echoing around in the recesses of my subconscious. My parents were big fans of the band The Fifth Dimension, who made a hit of their cover version of the song in 1968.

I must’ve heard the song hundreds of times growing up. Looking back, it’s just a little ironic that my parents, who rarely drank, would play a song for their children about underage drinking. But The Fifth Dimension were one of those acts with generational crossover appeal (believe me, I know – I was even taken to see them in about 1970, along with many other kids and their “square” parents – young and old clapping along).

But why now, subconscious? A song I haven’t heard in ages, about underage drinking, by a group my parents loved? The song, and the question, stuck with me.

You Know Laura, Right? I eventually found my answer the next day, starting with an online search of both the song Sweet Blindness, and its lyrics. The lyrics were no surprise—I’d remembered them correctly. But the beginnings of my answer came at the bottom of the lyrics page, in the form of the songwriter’s name—Laura Nyro. “Oh yeah,” I thought. I immediately searched for the original Laura Nyro version of the song, and listened. The songwriter had been lurking in the back of my mind for some time. I had been pre-intrigued.

Now things were unfolding for me. Last summer I’d followed the recommendation in a Steven Pressfield post and watched the documentary Inventing David Geffen. Near the onset of his career, long before he became the star-making super-agent, Geffen courted and signed 19 year old Laura. He speaks of her as the one of the brightest, most talented, most underappreciated finds of his multi-decade career. As a huge, lifelong music fan, I was a bit chagrinned that I didn’t know her name. But I surely knew her music, and I’ll bet you do, too.

The songs Laura wrote that became big hits all made the charts as cover songs done by other artists. Besides Sweet Blindness, there were several others made famous by The Fifth Dimension, including Blowin’ Away, Wedding Bell Blues, and my favorite, Stoned Slow Picnic (in which Laura invents the verb “surry,” which I love—more on that later). There were many others, perhaps most notably Stoney End, which only hit the top ten as a cover by Barbara Streisand. There was also Eli’s Comin’, taken to the charts by Three Dog Night. I would be remiss to leave And When I Die from the list, a song made famous by Blood, Sweat & Tears. What amazes me about that last one is that Laura wrote it when she was sixteen. “And when I die, and when I’m gone, there’ll be one child born in this world to carry on…” Pretty deep stuff (sorry, no pun) for a sixteen year old.

“Four leaves on a clover, I’m just a shade of a bit hung over…” ~ Laura Nyro

 An Artist’s Artist: After my 4 am sweet blindness, when my “morning after” arrived, I spent it watching videos and reading interviews and bios, and listening to Laura. Turns out Laura was one of those artist’s artists. You know the ones—artists that never really came to be broadly known, but who are embraced by other hugely talented artists as an inspiration or a seminal influence. I found several interviews and quotes alluding to Laura in this capacity from a broad range of artists, from Elton John to Suzanne Vega to Todd Rundgren; even musicians as diverse as Paul Shaffer and Alice Cooper cite her influence. It’s said that Stevie Wonder wrote If You Really Love Me in tribute to Laura’s style.

Laura with David Geffen in '68

Laura with David Geffen in ’68

In the Geffen documentary, he bemoans the fact that she never really got her due, but he admitted that she never really wanted fame. She disliked being “handled” in the studio, and was uncomfortable in the spotlight. She just wanted to make music. You could hear the regret in Geffen’s voice. You might now better understand my intrigue.

 “Come on baby, do the slow float…” ~L.N.

Cherished Freedom: One of the documentaries I watched was filmed in 1995, less than two years before Laura’s untimely passing at the age of 49. It’s shot in her home, and she’s shown alone on camera, with the interviewer off camera. Her first words are: “It was a beautiful life—very joyful.” She goes on to discuss her life as an artist: “For me, singing is like… It’s the closest I can come to flying. Writing music is like creating musical architecture. It’s my favorite thing to do. I use everything—my spirituality, feminism, motherhood, relationships… It can be frustrating sometimes, if you let yourself check into that energy. You just have to work every day. It’s an important part of my well-being.”

“I don’t accept limitations. I can use whatever I want to in my work. And that, to me, is freedom. It’s a freedom I cherish.”

“It’s a very simple feeling I have about all of this. It’s about an integrated spirituality, built into having an artistic life. It brings me peace.”

In the film she certainly looks and sounds like she’s at peace. And it was filmed after she’d been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, the same type that killed her mother, also at age 49.

“Now, ain’t that sweet-eyed blindness good to me…” ~L.N.

Laura’s Lessons: At the time of my 4 am sweet blindness, I hadn’t been working on a manuscript in several weeks. I’d been flailing back and forth about possible changes to a recently completed manuscript, even before all of the feedback was in. I was certainly in a place where I needed to be told to, “come on, baby, do the slow float.” In contemplation of Laura’s life and her work, I came away refreshed, and with a fresh outlook. Here are the lessons I’m taking to heart:

*Get back to work! Writing is my favorite thing to do. I enjoy using everything—my spirituality, my intelligence, my curiosity. Why would I allow weeks to go by without doing what I love?

*Don’t check into negative energy. There will always be ups and downs, and contradictions in feedback. Those are externals. Why should that have an effect on what I do from day to day?

*Forge your own artistic trail. Laura’s music can be somewhat polarizing. Even her voice is unique enough to be off-putting to some. You either get her and feel her, or you don’t. “Laura was not someone who copied people,” says veteran arranger and producer Charles Calello, who produced her second album. “She was original in every sense of the word.” In spite of that somewhat polarizing originality, it seems to me she never compromised on her art, never altered the path of her musical exploration in response to how her previous work was received. Now that’s a sort of sweet blindness I can aspire to.

*Find your peace through the work. Laura never had a top ten hit as a performer. But she had many top ten hits as a songwriter. She found herself—her identity as an artist—through the work itself. She did her “favorite thing” every day. She cherished the freedom, the expression, the outlet. And she found peace. Even in the face of an often fatal disease, she was able to smile at the camera and say, “It was a beautiful life—very joyful.” And I believe her.

Now, ain’t that sweet-eyed blindness good to me? You bet.

“Can you surry down to a stoned slow picnic?…” ~L.N. (from Stoned Slow Picnic)

Can You Surry? As I said, much ado has been made over Laura’s coining of the verb “surry” in the song Stoned Slow Picnic.  And no, this has nothing to do with a “surrey with the fringe on top.” When asked what it meant, Laura usually said something about liking the sound of it. When asked if it was a contraction of ‘let’s hurry,’ she was resolute: “Absolutely not. Quite the opposite.” David Geffen (who obviously knew her well at the time) explained it as being “a feel. It’s about allowing yourself to experience the joy of life. It’s about slowing down to recognize your happiness.”

I think “to surry” is to live without buying into negative energy, to do what we love, and to recognize the beauty, the freedom of it. If that’s true, then to surry is to move toward finding our peace in an artist’s life. To be able to honestly say, at the end, “It was a beautiful life—very joyful.”

Laura in '96, at peace

Laura in ’96, an artist at peace

So thanks, Laura, for surrying into my life when I needed you. Thanks for the inspiration and the life-lessons. Continue to surry, and be at peace.

How about you? Do you ever wake up with an old song in your head? Are your parents to blame? Will you help me to bring the verb “surry” into the lexicon? Would it matter to you if you were denied the recognition your work seemed to deserved? Can you find your peace through the work? 

Serenity Amdist Uncertainty – Writers In The Storm Redirect

121914 Best place to get the bluesSorry I’m late on this. I did a guest post for a very cool blog called Writers In The Storm this past Wednesday. It’s about facing the storm of uncertainty that is a career in writing fiction. And about measuring growth (or my seeming lack of ability to do so), and gaining a capacity for self-evaluation, and finding a bit of inner peace. I’ve been honored by the invitation, and by the essay’s acceptance by the WITS community. It seems to have been a balm for a few folks, as it certainly has been for me. And so I’m sharing it here, in the hopes that it continue to serve that role.

I haven’t been writing for a while. I’m trying to catch up on other, spring-related chores around here. But last night I woke up from a very clear dream about the characters from my recently completed manuscript. And the events of the dream clearly take place after the ending point of the last story. Book two is calling me again, and it fills me with wonder and writerly joy. No matter how far I stray, the world of Dania never fails to call me home.

And so, whether you have the time for the essay or not, I hope you too are always called home. I wish you writerly serenity… Or at least more good days than bad ones, and a semi-serene writing life (as the post explains about mine). Happy Spring! Have a great weekend!

O.P.B. – On Giving Critique: Writer Unboxed Redirect

Portrait of a Man Reading, by Joseph Wright of DerbyI’m so pleased to have contributed an essay to Writer Unboxed. I’ve said repeatedly that I consider it an honor, and I still feel that way. But I’m particularly pleased today because I haven’t read this essay in while ( I often write them and turn them in weeks in advance). When I wrote this one, I’d just finished critiquing a manuscript for a dear friend, who is so brilliantly talented. The experience had fired me on all cylinders, and I think my enthusiasm comes through. It’s sort of a Karmic coincidence that now, as the essay reappears, I’m in the final stages of readying my own WIP for others to read and critique. A wise mentor of mine said that the best thing we writers can do for one another is read and be read. And taking his advice to the next level, that to really stretch ourselves, we need to strive to earnestly offer and receive and process thoughtful critique.

I’d be honored to have you stop by Writer Unboxed and share your experiences with critiquing. Or feel free to do so here. Here’s to reading and being read!

To Miss Helen, With Appreciation

Miss HelenMissing Miss: I’m already missing Miss Helen. For those who haven’t heard, my mother passed away a week ago last Friday, six days after her 87th birthday. She left us quietly and seemingly painlessly, at home, in her own bed. This was important to her, and a mixed blessing to us. Of course we’re very sad she’s left us. But she did not want to leave the home in which I grew up–a home into which she moved as a young wife and new mother when the house was new, in 1953. We were increasingly concerned for her living there alone. My sister Colleen and my cousin Cathy had been doing a stellar job taking care of her there (thank you both!), but it was becoming clear that a few stop-ins a day were no longer going to be enough to ensure her safe care. In typical Miss Helen fashion, she took the matter into her own hands, and saw to it that we did not have to worry. Strong-willed and independent to the end.

Quite a few people know I refer to my mom as Miss Helen. But I’m not sure how many know the origin of the moniker. You see, she was a remarkably capable retail manager, for a fashion apparel chain called Gantos. All of Gantos’ female employees wore name tags that identified them as “Miss.” For a brief time, she was my boss there, when I was a teen and became the morning maintenance man. Working in four locations, I stayed with Gantos through my college years, and with thanks to Miss Helen, the Gantos location near the MSU campus is where I met my wife. Hence, calling her “Miss Helen” is a nod to her as a competent, take-charge leader; a role model; a source of discipline, determination, and good taste.

Formative Foundation: I lost a lot when I lost my mom. Because of her I: love the beach, know how to cook and clean and do laundry, understand that the world owes me nothing, and that anything worth having is worth the work required to achieve it.  And because this is a writing blog, perhaps most importantly to this aspect ofThe formative novels my life, I am grateful to say that through her came my love of reading. And if I hadn’t become a reader, I certainly wouldn’t have aspired to write. When I left the house where I grew up after the funeral services, I only took a few mementos: a dozen or so pictures and an armload of books. These were books of hers that I know were formative to my writing journey. They are dog-eared and worn. But to me they are treasures.

My cousin Jim, a Methodist minister, performed the funeral services, and beforehand he asked my siblings and I for our recollections and impressions. As you will see if you read on, I am no poet, but this tribute to my mom just sort of flowed out of me before I met with Jim. I’m not sure it’ll translate well for those who didn’t know her, but since many who attended the service asked me for a copy, and I’m not sure who all I promised to send it to, I thought I’d share it here.

To Miss Helen

Bright of eye, a smile so wry, from under thumb but ready

A mate to suit, an anchor root; quiet, kind and steady

With rolled up sleeves and dirty knees, they build a sturdy nest

To family life, to mom and wife, Jane Wyatt knows what’s best

Through frugal years no time for fears, the race is with the rat

But apt our dress, no more—no less, “Oh, you’re not wearing that!”

The homework’s done before our fun, with sass best left unsaid

We claim done chores to head outdoors, “You swept under the bed?”

When two leave home, go out to roam, a ranch becomes a cage

The fresh-faced beauty hits midlife and comes to fear old age

How Stepford, Steel, and valley’s dolls made Cosmo’s ways seem festive

The Feminine Mystique revealed a prism for the restive

Lest we forget the day’s dictate, a woman’s job was flaunting

But out she strove onto a stage, defying dogma daunting

She swiftly found her suited role, purveyor of high fashion

And even quicker did she rise, with wits and guts and passion

As for me, her lessons stuck; I’m clean, I cook, I strive

I’ve made enough mistakes to claim, it’s good to be alive

To Mom I’m grateful for so much, beyond the rent at State

Beyond my life, her greatest gift: my longing to create

She opened up a doorway to a place where I’m unbound

Where Pillars of the Earth were sought, and Far Pavilions found

It seems she never understood her role inside my work

I pray that now she clearly sees this writing gig’s no quirk

If I could send an ending note to reach her up above

I’d let her know she lives on still, there is no end to love

I’d say to her, “Your task is done; we’re clean and try our best,”

I’d tell Miss Helen, “Job well-done. And now it’s time to rest…”

Harbor Springs Porch-Sitters (68 or 69)

Thanks, Mom. For everything. Love you, miss you. Be at peace. Till we meet again. 

Just A Pup

FourLeaf's Surfer Girl, aka Gidget - 7 weeks old

FourLeaf’s Surfer Girl, aka Gidget – 7 weeks old

A Difficult Circle to Draw: Those of you who know me know that I am a dog lover. The last time I wrote a canine-connected post here was in February, when I delivered the sad news of the loss of our beloved Belle. I genuinely appreciate the outpouring of heartfelt condolences and support the post initiated. It was a very healing process, indeed.

We still sorely miss our Belle. The loss lingers, hitting us in unexpected ways. Today’s post is about dealing with the opposite—with the circle of life starting over again. And yet, as you’ll see, there are surprising similarities between the two extremes. If we are Facebook friends, you undoubtedly know that we have a new puppy in our lives. The steady stream of photos there are sort of my version of Rafiki holding up Simba for the appraisal of the realm.Rafiki displaying Simba

FourLeaf’s Surfer Girl, a.k.a. Gidget, arrived in our home at seven weeks of age in mid-May. She’s fourteen weeks old to the day as of the writing of this post. And she’s mostly adorable (I’ve heard people joke that puppies are cute so that we don’t kill them – I am once again reminded how bitingly funny that joke is). And quite often she’s even fun to have around. And so, in spite of life’s occasional trials and sorrows, the circle continues.

Consumed by Chaos: Gidget has now lived exactly half her life with us, and in some ways it feels like half a lifetime to me, too. It’s embarrassing to admit, but the chaos of having a puppy has more or less consumed my life these past seven weeks. The bursts of unbridled energy combined with a mouthful of needle teeth and no concept of manners can be utterly exhausting. Thank God puppies sleep sixteen to eighteen hours a day. Any more hours of that level of vitality would make raising one nigh unbearable. I’d forgotten what a relief it is to close a kennel door (as I did just before starting this post).

All of this gives me a renewed sense of appreciation for those of you who have kids and jobs outside of the house, let alone a pet (or pets), and still manage to get some writing done. I can see that it’s going to take much more focus from me, and rapid improvement from our new family member, for me to get my current rewrite done anytime soon.

Lessons at the Near End of the Leash: Sometimes I feel a bit of resentment for having to deal with such a turbulent presence in our house, in the stead of my dear lost writing partner. And I suffer occasional pangs of guilt over my increasing affection for Gidget (it’s not logical, but it feels like a betrayal to Belle). And yet I think having had so much of my attention and effort tied up in caring for and training our new family member has had its benefits. It’s a diversion from loss and grief over her predecessor. The overall experience has been a healing one. And, when I pay heed to the being at the near end of the leash, it’s been enlightening and growth inducing as well.

So, without further ado (and before she wakes up, and I’m back at it), I give you Gidget’s Puppy Lessons for Writers:

Pink puppy collar (9 weeks)*“Aww, isn’t that cute?” Sure, a puppy seems to be as cute as a cartoon character, or a stuffed animal. At least from the outside looking in. I’m always shocked when a parent blithely encourages a very small and unsteady child to approach and touch an animal that can’t possibly be relied upon to behave; one that is also teething and has a mouthful of fishhooks. I know—they’re just playing, right? I’d remind you how rough retriever pups’ play is by showing you the scars on my hands and arms. It’s nothing that won’t heal, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t sting.

It’s very similar to when outsiders hear that you are a writer, isn’t it? You can almost hear it in their voices: “Aww, isn’t that cute?” They think we’re cartoon characters, scribbling down our little stories—livin’ the dream. They can’t know about the angst the blank page can induce, or the fortitude it takes to overcome writerly dread and hit the send button—to feel the sting of even a playfully tough critique. When someone’s stroking me about how great the writer’s life must be, it’s almost enough to make me want to unexpectedly bite. “What? I was just playing,” I’d say. “It’ll heal.”

Gidget’s Lesson: Although it takes time and maturity, we can inhibit our antisocial impulses, and learn to appreciate that those who pay attention to us mostly mean well. We know that no one really likes a rough patting on the head, but those who pat are oblivious. So just take it in the spirit in which it’s intended, and move on.

*Renewed Sense of Wonder: When was the last time you really appreciated the dew on every blade of grass, or marveled at the grace of a dragonfly? How about the splendor of the sun reflecting on the lake, or the rhythm of waves lapping on the shore? What about the feel of sun-warmed sand on your belly? How evocative is the echoing honking of a passing flock of geese in the gray of dawn? I must admit, it had been a while since I was up that early, let alone stopped and watched geese flying over. But I got chills in watching my puppy’s wide-eyed appraisal.Digging in the dune (10 weeks)

To a puppy everything is new. Every person is a marvel, there to be met and known. Every other animal is a magnificent wonder. Every new dog is a potential best friend.

Gidget’s Lesson: Seeing the world through a puppy’s eyes is a real gift. Life’s fascinating details can become peripheral to our attention if we don’t take note. And isn’t the best writing born of noticing?

*There Is No Finish Line: I keep wondering when this puppy thing will be over. When do those needle teeth fall out again? How long before we can rely on her to come when we call? When will she just chill out with us while we read or watch TV? When will she become my writing partner, and hang out in my office with me during the day (without demanding three-quarters of my attention)?

It’s pretty easy to remember the latter halves of Belle’s and Maggie’s lives, when they were ideal companions. It’s convenient to forget the years of training and the frustrating days along the way. For the first three years of Belle’s life, if she found a dead fish on the beach, the only thing on her mind was whether to roll on it or eat it (depending on the state of rot, I suppose). Paying heed to my bellowing was not even on her radar. And yet, at some point, we could easily call her off of a dead fish. It took time, patience, and a lot of soapy baths to get there. Even then, heaven knows she was no angel. Heaven also knows that her selective hearing loss was not due to her advancing age so much as to her lifelong bouts of stubbornness.

Gidget’s Lesson: This lesson is more of a reminder. Raising a canine companion is about the evolution of a relationship. The bonding and the improved reliability are gradual. It takes daily dedication and practice. And there are going to be setbacks. When reversals happen, all that can be done is to begin again. (I think the similarity to the evolution of the writing life is evident without further explanation, don’t you?)

Staying Playful:

Gidget Goes to the beach (8 weeks)

“Dogs and people aren’t normal mammals. Most mammals play a lot when they’re young and then gradually become more sedate… There are few other animals, besides dogs and humans, who also show high levels of play as adults…Overall, the young of any species are much quicker to welcome change than their elders… From a broad perspective, adult humans are amazingly flexible compared to the adults of other species. Our love of play goes hand in hand with that flexibility, and it’s one of the defining characteristics of our bond with our dogs.” ~Patricia B. McConnell, Ph.D. (from The Other End of the Leash)

Some days I think I’m getting too old for this puppy thing. On a recent trying day I even told my wife that I thought this was the last time. “The next one’s going to be an adult rescue,” I vowed. But on the good days, I’m not so sure. And history indicates I have a short memory for these types of vows. Perhaps Gidget is just the ticket to shaking this staid writer back to flexibility—both physically and mentally. A reminder to stay playful, about my work and my life, might be just what I need right now.

First water fetch (12 weeks)I’ve noticed that, through happenstance during play, Gidget is learning and growing. By being interested in a toy bumper, and chasing it, she’s learned both to swim and retrieve—both important aspects of the serious work of her lineage. Labs were originally bred to haul nets in the frigid Atlantic, after all. Through play, she’s gaining the skills and the aptitude for work. And it’ll be work she’ll enjoy for the rest of her life.

Gidget sees every waking hour as a chance to play. Perhaps I should take that approach to my own work. Perhaps that’s not such a bad thing to stay a pup.

Paying Homage to Predecessors:  I said at the onset that there were surprising similarities to this post and the one I wrote after Belle’s passing. The lessons I note that Belle taught me are about patience, finding the joy in chaos, showing up every day, and that a job well-done was reward in and of itself. I’ll be damned if those aren’t lessons needed for raising a puppy. I also once wrote that because of Maggie before her, Belle had a specially blessed life. Now it’s Belle’s turn to pass along the blessing.

Not a day goes by that I am not grateful to Belle for the lessons she taught me—lessons so keenly needed now. And she’s there for me when I lose my patience, too—reminding me that I can do this. Belle reminds me that if I could survive her puppyhood, I can deal with just about anything the world dishes up. I close my eyes, then look skyward and take a deep breath, and I realize this puppy will be worth it.

So I will end this post as I ended that last one, by publicly restating: “Thank you, Miss. For everything—for all the lessons, all the stories, all the laughs and tears. I promise you, they will not go to waste. I will never forget.” It’s important to remind myself, because I’m still learning, still growing. It’s important because, after all, in many respects I’m really still just a pup.

I'm a big girl - Gidget at 14 weeks.

I’m a big girl – Gidget at 14 weeks.

How about you? Are just still “just a pup”? Give me your puppy stories. Do they apply to your writing journey?